The way we use air conditioning is changing, and it’s time we talked about it, expert says

If the climbing cost of running air conditioners doesn’t force us to look seriously at the way we use them, maybe climate change or a pandemic will.

Heatwaves in this country are our deadliest natural hazard. It’s understandable that Australians are turning to air conditioners in droves.

Wanting to stay cool in summer, or warm in winter, is, after all, a “normal human expectation”, says social scientist and associate director of the Monash Energy Institute Yolande Strengers.

“Air conditioning is very important to many Australians lives,” Dr Strengers says.

Australians are using their air conditioners in different ways to combat things like COVID concerns as well as bushfire smoke. (ABC RN: Nick Wiggins)

But our relationship with it is changing, and she wants to see more people talking about it.

Exposure to the toxic bushfire smoke and an increased concern about ventilation are impacting the way consumers use energy, as we think more about keeping out air that might harm us.

“We’ve got to stop just thinking about heating and cooling, and we’ve got to start thinking about healthy and safe air … because it’s something that we’re all going to need,” Dr Strengers says.

“But it’s a question now of how we get there in a way that isn’t going to exacerbate the very problems that are creating the need to have healthy and safe air.”

A change in the way we think about air

In 2021, Dr Strengers and a team of researchers released the Digital Energy Futures study, with energy consumers and distributors, which observed people’s changing relationship with heating and cooling in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

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The study found “an increasing focus on purifying the air and having safe and healthy air in the home”, Dr Strengers says.

In the event of a bushfire, people shut up their homes and “become far more reliant on mechanical cooling and on air conditioning as a way to manage the air during that time”.

But she said the study also showed “a lot of people starting to buy air purifiers and other kinds of air technologies to try and manage the air in their home, and doing things like ventilating the home by opening up windows, which can counteract the efficiency of heating and cooling”.

It marks a shift from typical air conditioning practices.

“What we’re seeing is a transition in Australia about how we think about air in our homes,” Dr Strengers says.

“And that could completely change … what kind of energy we need to provide.”

Coolness going straight out the window

“Obviously, we all want to live in comfortable houses,” Gregor Verbic from Sydney University’s Centre for Future Energy Networks, tells ABC RN’s Drive.

“The problem is that our houses are not well designed or not properly insulated, so we use way more electricity for keeping our houses cold or warm than we should,” Dr Verbic says.

Dr Strengers argues: “We need to be thinking about ways to provide cooling in homes that don’t draw down [or increase] demand on the grid”.

“Now, some people say, oh, we should just build more power [infrastructure], but it just doesn’t make any economic sense to build and provide additional infrastructure when it’s only being used for five or six days of the year,” she says.

For one thing, the cost of that infrastructure is passed on to the consumer.

Dr Verbic points to poor house design, arguing it “means we are locking in electricity consumption that is way bigger than it should be”.

He says open-planned designs – which are increasingly common – can make cooling homes harder. House designs also often fail to maximise things like cross breezes and other forms of ventilation.

And a significant part of the problem is in the way our homes are typically constructed.

“In Australia, you can get away with not properly insulating the home,” Dr Verbic says. Yet it makes a massive difference when it comes to efficiently cooling or heating a home.

A properly insulated home near the coast in Sydney would “probably have no need for air conditioning – no need for heating in winter or cooling in summer”, he says.

He also highlighted single glazed windows – “which are pretty much normal here in Australia” – and aluminium frames as culprits in conducting heat.

Poorly designed homes will have an impact on electricity demands “decades into the future”, he says.

“That’s an issue because it will cost the householders more and also will end up emitting many more tons of CO2, and that’s obviously not good for the climate.”

Dr Verbic conducted a rough calculation at his own home and discovered that on a hot summer’s day, with the air conditioner running, “between 30 and 40 per cent of that coolness goes straight out of the windows”.

“So insulation in the walls and in the roof is one thing. But windows are also a very important aspect, and many Australians don’t even know about that. They don’t really think about that.”

Need for alternatives to ‘privatised solutions’

Perhaps as a result of the poor thermal design of many homes, Australians tend to balance air conditioning with other “culturally adapted ways of staying cool”, Dr Strengers says.

For example, we tend to make the most of features like eaves and blinds, and “we have a really strong culture of going to waterholes, to the beach and to rivers, and seeking other places to stay cool”.

She says we also, generally, want to do the right thing.

“The majority of people that we speak to are balancing concerns for energy or the environment with their desire to provide a healthy and safe environment for their household or their family,” Dr Strengers says.

She says it would be unfair to blame consumers for increased energy demands and air conditioner usage.

“There’s so many things that contribute to how we use air conditioning. Sure, there might be some people who are wasteful and don’t think about the energy impacts or the costs, but there are many people that don’t have a choice,” she says.

For example, people who rent in poor quality housing, who “don’t have the option to go and buy energy efficient appliances [and] don’t live near the coast with a sea breeze [or] don’t have shading around their property”.

“So to blame people and say, we’re being wasteful, I just wouldn’t put it like that. I think it’s much more complicated.”

She wants to see more “cooling centres” – public and also private infrastructure that provides cooling for people who either can’t access it or can’t afford air conditioning in their homes going forward.

So that could be things like public libraries, which are places where people already tend to seek refuge during the heat.

It could also be other kinds of cooling environments such as wet splash parks.

“It’s about making sure we have other options that are accessible to all and don’t just rely on air con in homes as being the solution going forward for everyone,” she says.

“We need to be thinking about this quite holistically. How do we manage these kinds of changes in our homes, in our properties?

“If you can’t afford a purifier and an air con and you’ve got a smoky home or you’re concerned about COVID, where are people going to go?

“You can’t just completely rely on these privatised solutions. Particularly for vulnerable people.”

Dr Strengers wants industry and policy makers to start looking more seriously at how we can design our homes – and our energy system – to deal with changing air conditioning needs.

“I don’t think those questions are being asked yet,” she says.

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